And then there's Bea: Remembering Bea Arthur

Illustration by Jillian Tamaki

Bea Arthur passed away over the weekend at age 86, and I'm feeling totally bereft.

I can’t think of a moment in my life when Bea wasn’t there on my TV screen. She didn’t feel like an actor so much as a wisecracking friend who popped over for visits once a week, thanks to the magic of syndication and reruns.

A true original, Arthur was always the no-nonsense broad in the pantsuit. As Dorothy Zbornak, the divorcee caring for her aging mother in The Golden Girls, she didn’t take guff from anybody, and always proved a welcome voice of reason alongside flibbertigibbets Blanche (Rue McClanahan) and Rose (Betty White). Without Arthur’s bone-dry, deadpan delivery, the show would easily have become cloying and hackneyed. In fact, the Arthur-less series spinoff Golden Palace barely limped along for one season before it was cancelled, likely because even Golden devotees missed the actor's caustic spark.

But in spite of her small-screen triumphs as Dorothy, and her Tony-winning portrayal of Vera Charles in Mame, Bea Arthur will always be Maude to me.

Norman Lear created a whole series around the character after Arthur stole the show during a 1971 appearance on All in the Family as Archie Bunker’s extremely liberal cousin Maude Findlay. When she ventured out on her own in Maude (1972-1978), Arthur showed more of the same crack comic timing and wit she’d wielded against Cousin Archie.

Watch the clip below and see how much she could do with a mere beat or a roll of her eyes, and it’s easy to understand why she won an Emmy in 1977 for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series.

Maude also dared to tackle some extremely controversial material for the time, and Arthur became a voice for a generation of women still struggling to find their own. As the character of Maude sounded off on pot and politics, and dared to have an abortion (on network television!), she broke new ground. Though several women (Roseanne Barr, in particular) have followed in her loudmouthed footsteps, I’d like to think it was Arthur who did it first, and did it with more aplomb than any of her successors.

Bea, you'll be missed.

--Lee Ferguson